Joel Smith is the general manager of X-Fusion Shox, and has a wealth of experience in mountain bike suspension.
In the golden years of Answer/Manitou suspension, he kept the ship sailing in the right direction, and more recenty, he used his suspension expertise to team up with John Tomac and head up Tomac Bikes. With Tomac, he produced some excellent suspension platforms, before moving on to the ever-expanding suspension brand, X-Fusion, which is based in Santa Cruz, California.
BikeRadar: How long has X-fusion been based in Santa Cruz?
Joel Smith: X-Fusion was founded in 1999, originally as a supplier to another suspension manufacturer, but quickly developed into a brand of its own.
The US office has been in Northern California since the start, but five years ago we moved the office from the San Jose area to Santa Cruz.
We chose Santa Cruz because we do all of the development and testing in the US and we need a good place to ride all year around. Santa Cruz is also a good spot because we can be closely connected to the bike companies in the area.
Why do you think there is such a bike industry presence in the Santa Cruz area?
Good weather and good riding are the obvious draws to Santa Cruz, but I think it's always been pretty central to mountain biking in Northern California, from back in the Bontrager and Paul Turner-era Rockshox days.
I also think that the more bike companies that come, the easier it becomes for more bike companies to follow.
Smith worked with Answer/Manitou and Tomac Bikes before joining X-Fusion Shox
X-Fusion parts are starting to get some decent OEM spec now, where are you hoping to go?
Well, both the OEM and aftermarket business has been growing for the past two years, but because of the sheer volume of OEM, this is where the real numbers come from.
Aftermarket is, of course, more profitable, with higher margins, it's just that the numbers are far smaller.
It's nice seeing brands such as Intense picking X-Fusion on their complete bike builds. What other companies are offering OEM packages with X-Fusion?
Specialized has always been X-Fusion’s biggest customer, but Ibis was the first company that proved you could sell a high-end bike with X-Fusion.
I will forever be grateful to Tom and Hans at Ibis for this. They took a chance with X-Fusion because they believed early on with what we were trying to do. It really helped get the ball rolling and make it easier for companies such as Intense, Rocky Mountain, Norco, GT and Cannondale to use X-Fusion on performance bikes.
Smith riding in the hills around Santa Cruz on an Ibis mountain bike. Ibis was the first brand to prove you could sell a high-end bike with X-Fusion suspension
Does X-fusion make stuff for any one else?
Yes, we do in the both the motorcycle and bicycle industry, but we have confidentiality agreements with them all.
In recent years, we've noticed X-Fusion products coming up the ranks at considerable pace – offering really decent and consistent damping. You've quietly been chipping away and look set to make a major impact soon…
We’ve had this goal to provide excellent performance, durability and quality, and I think people are finally catching on that we are doing it. I am really excited about the near-future. We have a lot of exciting products coming!
Some other brands that used to make consistently good suspension products have fallen off the back a little. Why do you think this is?
The suspension game is really hard, which is why there are so few brands doing it (especially compared with bike brands nowadays). If you've been around long enough, you know it's also a roller-coaster ride for the suspension companies.
One issue is that as the volume increases, even if the overall warranty percentage rates don't, you still have more individual problems and potentially disappointed customers out there. Manitou and Marzocchi had big volume increases, and I don't think the service side of the business was adequately prepared for this. They rode the roller-coaster to the bottom, but that doesn't mean they won't come back.
Us old guys remember RockShox when it was the dominant brand, and then everything went pear-shaped. Now RockShox is making a comeback, and the recently-dominant Fox is feeling it!
I feel like things are stabilising a little bit in the suspension world. Everyone is learning from previous mistakes, but it's still not easy to be a suspension brand.
Who do you think are making the best suspension products right now?
There are so many different categories and there are great products in everyone's range. I'd like to believe X-Fusion is actually making the best performing products for the money.
The RockShox Pike is good, especially for a mass production fork, but they can also be inconsistent. If I was only considering performance, I like BOS. When we are doing ride testing, it's always the fork I end up comparing our stuff to.
Smith riding with BikeRadar interviewer, Andrew Dodd. "Good weather and good riding are the obvious draws to Santa Cruz," he says
If you weren’t in Santa Cruz, where else would be a good enough base for you?
If it weren't so hot in the summer, I would say Phoenix, Arizona. The trails are so rough and demanding there, I just love it. But, it's deadly there in the summer.
I love Colorado, especially near Salida, but it's a limited season because of snow in the winter. So I would say Laguna Beach would the next ideal spot. We do a lot of testing there with Brian Lopes, and it has good weather, technical riding and is a nice place in general.
Where would you ride tomorrow, if it could be anywhere – and who with?
I would ride with Johnny T at South Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. He and I have spent a lot of time riding there and I have some great memories.
This article is the third in a series of interviews with key players of the Santa Cruz bike industry. Watch out for more in the coming weeks, and read the previous interviews below: